Good Leaders and Followers

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This is a follow-up to my last post about the Future of Folkloristics conference. The conference participants talked about the skills of leadership and “followership.” Many people don’t think that they are, or can become leaders. They feel more comfortable as a follower.

I don’t have a problem with that, except the rules for good leaders and followers are exactly the same.

What do I mean?

Think about what makes a good leader. Here are a few traits:

  • Empathy: Creating a legitimate rapport with co-workers makes it less likely that personal issues and resentment can creep in and derail the workplace. When your colleagues know that you are empathetic to their concerns, they will be more likely to work with you and share in your vision, rather than foster negative feelings.
  • Consistency/Dependability: Being a consistent colleague is essential to building respect and credibility. Your colleagues need to know they can depend on you, and consistency is the primary way to do that.
  • Honesty: Another characteristic of a good colleague that builds credibility and trust. People who are honest, especially about concerns, make it far more likely that obstacles will be addressed rather than avoided.
  • Communication: Effective communication helps keep colleagues informed and allows everyone to feel like they are part of the larger mission of the organization.
  • Flexibility: Not every problem demands the same solution. Being flexible to new ideas and open-minded enough to consider them increases the likelihood that you will find the best possible answer.

Think about that list. Which of these traits are less important for any member of a working group? I want everyone who works in my department to have those qualities, regardless if they are the head of a program or a brand new teacher.

Another thing to consider: with each of these characteristics, we often assume that people have these qualities, or they do not. Not so. It’s true, every person has their own set of strengths, but it’s equally true that these qualities can be learned.

There is one characteristic that all leaders have to have: vision. A vision the ability to break out of the here and now and aim for great things, and have the wherewithal to set the steps necessary to get there. By seeing what can be and setting the goals on how to get there, a competent leader can effect significant change.

The Future of American Folkloristics #FOAF

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GMU Folklore students and alums posing with Stith Thompson.                                                           L-R: Chrissy Widmeyer, Kristina Downs, Kim Stryker, Debra Lattanzi Shutika, Stith Thompson, Kaitlyn Kinney, Kerry Kaleba, Citizen Ken

About a year ago, a group of forward-thinking graduate students at Indiana University hatched a plan for a conference. They wanted to bring folklorists at all stages of their careers* together to discuss the future of the discipline. Shortly after, the planning for FOAF began. This week, one hundred plus folklorists converged on Bloomington. From the start is was clear something historic was happening.

The conference had a distinct dynamic. Most panels were headed by women, and the audience members were engaged, enthusiastic, and positive. Ideas where shared. Friendships were forged. The future looks brighter today than it did when I arrived in Bloomington four days ago.

What did this conference accomplish?

The graduate student organizers asked their peers and elders to seriously consider an important issue: where are we going? Amazingly, there was almost none of the customary kvetching that we come to expect when folklorists get together to discuss the field. The kvetching that did come up was mostly in the Twitter feed. I think we all recognized that there will always be folklorists who are envious, discontented and jaundiced. That’s a personal choice that some will always hang onto. At the same time, it was clear that the participants recognized that kvetching doesn’t solve problems. Identifying problems doesn’t either. It might make the kvetcher feel better, but the problems will still be there.

What’s the alternative? In-depth discussions of what folklorists CAN ACTUALLY DO to strengthen the field. Some of the things we discussed included:

  1. Strategies for selling our programs and events to university deans, provosts and presidents directly
  2. How to lobby congress and local representatives (drawing on the efforts of the National Humanities Alliance)
  3. Using the fantastic AFS Advocacy Toolkit
  4. Creating new positions and programs in folklore
  5. Developing folklore leaders to be better prepared to shape the organizations where we work.

We also discussed the realistic limitations of our power. Some problems are structural and not of our making. We can and should work to reshape our workplaces, but we’re not going to be able to fix every injustice.

Finally, I think we also broke through folklore’s 4th wall: moving from a community of problem-identifiers to problem-solvers. We have started to see where our agency, however limited, can be utilized. I expect we’ll have more conversations about how each folklorist can shape our discipline and workplaces for a new future.

*I have purposely not made a distinction between different types of folklorists: applied, public, independent, or academic. We’re ALL folklorists.

The Field School 2016

Today I begin the first field visit to prepare for the 2016 Field School for Cultural Documentation. I’ll be working with Community Gardens in Arlington County.

I grew up on a farm, so the idea of a kitchen garden makes sense to me. I tore out landscaping around my house to exploit the only sunny spot on our largely wooded property to ensure we have fresh tomatoes and beans each season. The community garden is a small-scale urban farm. In Arlington, the county government provides about 4 acres of land to allow residents (mainly those who live in apartments and condos) to grow their own food.

January will be a fallow time, but I’m excited to see to garden spaces and how the parcels are managed in the off-season.

This blog will become much more active now that I’m back in the field.

Two Arlingtons? An Ethnographic Reflection

Two years ago I wrapped up a two-year ethnographic project along Northern Virginia’s Columbia Pike in Arlington, VA. The project provided a great site for the Field School for Cultural Documentation, but tensions in the community were running high. Long-term residents reported being ignored by their county board members. Small business owners said they were uniformed and shut out of discussions about the planned redevelopment project. Students were exited about the data they were collecting, but many reported feeling conflicted: residents, especially small ethnic business owners, were asking for help getting information. That was not the role the students were supposed to take.

Columbia Pike, Arlington VA

 

It was time to move to another project.

That field school ended, just as all of them have, with a public presentation of our findings. We had a huge crowd that day, nearly sixty community members and activists. We were very pleased to see Chris Zimmerman, then a member of the county board, join us.

The world emerging along Columbia Pike was divided. There were residents who supported redevelopment and the increased property values they believed would accompany the facelift. These residents uniformly supported the streetcar project.  The second large group were residents who were suspicious of redevelopment and did not want a streetcar.  But both groups spoke of the larger Arlington community, particularly those who live north of Route 50 in North Arlington. Many Columbia Pike residents believed that the interests of North Arlington were being enacted through the redevelopment project, that the board was unresponsive and interested only in raising tax revenues. It was common for Pike residents to say that redevelopment was threatening the unique qualities and culture of their community.

After my students completed their presentations, I had a minute to talk to Chris Zimmerman. I told him about the divide the ethnographic team found in the community, and I encouraged him to read the project fieldnotes and listen to the oral histories we collected. “I think it would be useful for you to hear what your citizens are saying about leadership in the county,” I told him.

Columbia Pike

Mr. Zimmerman declined my offer, noting that there are always discontented community members who disagree with major civic projects.

Today’s Washington Post published this article about two Arlingtons, north and south. The article ends on a positive note, quoting a north Arlington resident who sees the poorer residents south of his community as part of his Arlington. It’s a nice sentiment, and a great ending for the piece. But that statement doesn’t sum up what’s going on in Arlington along Columbia Pike. The streetcar defeat is no surprise to me or anyone who has spent time listening to residents who live there. The county board would be wise to spend some time listening those constituents as well.

Fear and Loathing in Ethnography

We’re into the second week of fieldwork with the field school. I’ve been meeting with research teams and talking about their progress I find that students have two major obstacles to overcome. The  first is moving into the field. The second is setting up and completing interviews

Moving Into the Field

The first week of fieldwork, students are out in research community observing, meeting people and getting a feel for the parameters of the project. When I’m teaching a fieldschool, I generally send students out in groups of 2-4 and ask them to do their initial observations together. This is good for safety (no one should be in a study community alone, no matter where it is), but also to develop comaraderie.  The first few times out I generally find out who the most outgoing students are, who’s most likely to hang back, and who is likely to be a natural. Students often report the first week in the field is the hardest. They have to practice ethnography and use every opportunity to engage the research community.

While the initial contact can be difficult, it’s not the biggest obstacle. Even the most reserved student can become an expert observer of a social scene.  The next step-engagement and oral history-can also be a challenge.

The Oral History

Much as been written about the ethnographic interview; some researchers mistake the interview as ethnography itself, a major oversight. Ethnographic interviews are most reliable in a larger context of participant-observation research. They provide the necessary depth, allow informants to explain their social milieu, and provide the unseen aspects of ethnographic collection, allowing the researcher to see how the past has influenced the present.

Last week students were asked to dedicate their time to setting up and completing their oral history interviews. Some had immediate success; others had to ask for my help to make the connection to get informants so they could complete this part of the project. In all cases students came back from their interviews with a new understanding of their field site and the people with whom they are working.

The final hurdle is the public presentation, which will take place on June 19 at the Alexandria Seaport Foundation (2 Duke Street, Alexandria, VA).  Ethnography is a form of public scholarship. It requires the collaboration of a community and the results are belong to that community. I pleased with the work the students have completed this summer and I look forward to their public presentations and the feedback we’ll all receive at the public forum.